Theme: Pilate the Governor
In this week’s lessons, we see that although Pilate declared Jesus innocent, nevertheless, he allowed for his crucifixion, and so failed to stand up for what was right.
Scripture: John 18:28-19:16
In John 18 and 19, Jesus is on trial before Pilate, who is the governor in Jerusalem whom the occupying Romans had put in power. In the context of this trial we get an insightful description of this man Pilate. It is perhaps noteworthy to have him in this series of people whom Jesus encountered. For one thing, he’s a Gentile, and more than that, he is a representative of Rome. Another thing that’s striking about this encounter is the amount of space that’s given over to him. You find it in the other Gospels, but John records more of the conversation between Pilate and Jesus. He’s introduced in John 18:28, where the Sanhedrin, the assembly of Jewish leaders, takes Jesus to the Roman governor for the Roman part of the trial.
The Jews had the authority to condemn someone of a crime, but they couldn’t carry out the death penalty. Rome retained that ability, so they had to have a Roman trial to secure the death penalty, which is what they wanted. That’s what begins there in verse 28. It goes all the way through the end of that chapter and the whole way on into chapter 19, finally ending with the crucifixion. Pilate then comes in again later in verse 38. Thirty-five verses are given over to the exchange between Jesus and Pilate.
Now Pilate is a great mystery as we see in the Gospels and for a couple of reasons. First, we know something about Pilate’s character from nonbiblical sources. That’s to be expected. He was a figure of some power and influence and so he’s written about elsewhere. Josephus, especially, who writes the history of the Jewish people, has a full description of Pilate, including many events from his earlier life that are not mentioned in the Gospels. How would you describe him? Well, I think you’d have to say that he was an immoral opportunist at best. He was a Spaniard, having grown up in Seville. He entered the Roman legions and served under Germanicus, the great general on the Rhine, where they were fighting the German barbarians at the time.
After there was a temporary peace in those battles, Pilate came to Rome. He began to try to work his way up into a position of power because now he was there at the very center of the Roman government. He met a woman whom he married, whose name was Claudia Procula, and in the political sense that was the making of Pilate. Claudia Procula was the daughter of Julia, who was the daughter of the great Emperor Augustus. By marrying the emperor’s granddaughter, he found himself connected to the royal family and as a result of that he eventually applied for and was awarded the proconsulship of Judea, which is where we find him here in this story.
Now Julia, Augustus’ daughter and Claudia Procula’s mother, was a very immoral woman. In the ancient Roman world you could be pretty immoral and it would still be all right. So if they regarded Julia as immoral, she was really immoral. She was so bad that she was a disgrace to Augustus. He said on one occasion, “Would that I were wifeless or had childless died.” That’s how strongly he felt about it. This was the family that Pilate chose to marry into. So, as I say, as an opportunist, he succeeded well because he got this position as governor in Judea; but in terms of his life choices it was something that more upstanding or moral, noble Romans would not have done.
The second thing you can say about him as far as we know him from the secular sources is that he was cruel and very insensitive, particularly to the feelings of the people he was sent to govern. There are some stories that are connected with his life that bring that out. The Jews, as you know, were very sensitive in religious areas. They adhered to the law, and one of the things, indeed the fundamental tenet of their religion, is that there was one God whom alone was to be worshiped, and not in any way by images.
So, to the Jewish mind, all of the idols of the pagans were an offense. In addition, there were also images of the emperor that were used by the Roman legions, since the emperor was also considered a god. This is the kind of idolatry and blasphemy that existed in Palestine that the Jews had around them. The Jews felt so strongly about that that they wouldn’t even have any of those images on the standards that were on the banners borne by the Roman legions in the city of Jerusalem. And they were willing to die for that, which the Romans knew.
A man named Vitellius, a legate of Syria, when he had to march against the Arabs who were in Arabia, had along the banners with their standards that were offensive to Jews. So in order not to cause this kind of offense and risk trouble from the Jewish people, the Romans were very careful on the march to go around Jewish territory. But Pilate was not so sensitive to how the Jews may or may not react to an offensive display like this.
When Pilate first arrived in the country, his first act, as he sent the legions that had accompanied him up to Jerusalem, was to have them carry those standards in by night. The fact that he did it by night shows that he knew there was a problem; he wasn’t oblivious to it. But that he did it at all was very insensitive and the Jews were outraged by it. This action by Pilate created so many riots that the situation was getting out of hand, and finally the Jews sent a delegation down to Caesarea, on the coast, where Pilate was staying. There was a standoff for five days, and finally he summoned them to come into the amphitheater and then he surrounded them with his soldiers and said he was going to kill them all if they didn’t disband and go back to Jerusalem. He was astounded to find that they immediately lay down in the sand of the amphitheater, bared their throats and said, “Go ahead and kill us, because we’d rather have that than have Jerusalem desecrated.” Pilate recognized he couldn’t get his own way, and so he backed off on that occasion. But he really didn’t learn anything because he did the same sort of thing later.
Why did the Jews want a Roman trial for Jesus?
What do we learn about Pilate’s background and character?